Sun Country Airlines stretched to ‘seams’ with rapid growth

Feb 5, 2020

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Sun Country Airlines is bursting at the seams as growth ratchets up this year with the addition of its first Amazon flying.

The Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP)-based carrier will introduce the first of 10 Boeing 737 Freighters for the e-commerce giant in April, while continuing to expand its passenger flying to four new destinations in May. All of this comes as it continues to absorb its 2019 growth, and develop its new connecting bus service in Minnesota.

“We’re stretching at the seams at little Sun Country,” Sun Country CEO Jude Bricker said at the Routes Americas forum in Indianapolis Wednesday.

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Under Bricker’s leadership, Sun Country has grown from an airline with 22 737s in 2017 to one that will have 45 jets, including the Amazon freighters, by July.

The privately-held carrier saw its net profit jump by more than a third to $47 million during the year ending in March 2019, the latest U.S. Department of Transportation airline financial data shows.

But growth, even profitable growth, does not come without its headaches. Sun Country faces challenges hiring the staff needed to get — and keep — all its new jets in the air, and just managing that growth to ensure it does not have an operational meltdown.

“With 2.5% unemployment, the upside is just about everybody in the Twin Cities can buy a ticket, the downside is staffing is really difficult,” said Bricker. “It’s not a function of people don’t want to come work for us, the problem is I’m trying to double the operation in 18 months”

Related: Sun Country’s CEO is building a ‘civilized’ budget carrier

Other airlines, including Allegiant Air where Bricker worked for years, have faced similar challenges. Operations are a notable area of stress for high-growth carriers, with the likes of JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines all facing public issues before implementing a renewed focus on reliable performance.

These challenges have not deterred or otherwise slowed Sun Country’s growth. In 2020, passenger capacity is due to be flat though overall “block hours” — a measure of how many hours an aircraft is in revenue service — will increase roughly 15% year-over-year due to the Amazon deal, said Bricker.

One focus will be the success of Sun Country’s Landline bus partnership that launched in November. The first two routes, between Minneapolis/St. Paul airport and Duluth (DLH) and Mankato (MKT) in Minnesota, have seen mixed success with the former “great” and the latter having “not quite taken off,” said Bricker.

The airline’s aim is for travelers to leave their cars at home and take the bus — with a Sun Country flight number and all — to the its flights in Minneapolis. The service allows passengers to check bags through to their final destination in both Duluth and Mankato, and then enjoy a bus ride with free Wi-Fi and complimentary snacks and non-alcoholic drinks on the ride to the Twin Cities.

Related: Sun Country bets on Landline buses to extend regional reach

Sun Country is focused on continuing to build demand for the bus routes, which act as essentially a regional flight on the ground, said Bricker. It hopes to expand the service to additional points, including Fargo (FAR), Madison (MSN) and Sioux Falls (FSD), in the near future.

For now Sun Country is gearing up for its freighter launch in April, and all the details that a new business segment entails. Beyond that, Bricker said business is strong and the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX — a jet it does not operate, nor has plans to operate — has not put pressure on the airline.

Featured image courtesy of Sun Country Airlines.

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